Archaeologists studying rock art in northwestern Arnhem Land, Australia, have uncovered a decades-long mystery surrounding two unique boat paintings.
The paintings, found inside a cave, have baffled experts for years due to their unfamiliar features and origins.
However, a recent study published in the journal Historical Archaeology suggests that these depictions may provide valuable insights into Indigenous stories that have been lost over time.
According to the research conducted by Flinders University, the paintings likely represent ancient “fighting craft” from the Moluccas, also known as the Maluku Islands, an Indonesian archipelago located directly north of Australia. Unlike other paintings of fishing boats and European ships found in the area, these particular vessels display warlike features, including triangular flags, pennants, and prow adornments associated with martial status.
The presence of these fighting crafts challenges the prevailing narrative of Macassan coastal fishing and trading in the region, shedding light on the potential for physical violence or a projection of power between the Indigenous Australians and visitors from the Moluccas.
Possible causes of conflict include trade disputes, head-hunting, or even slavery. The level of detail captured in the paintings indicates that the Indigenous artists spent significant time observing and potentially voyaging on these ships, rather than merely glimpsing them from the shoreline.
The study’s findings offer a fresh perspective on Australia’s history by revealing a previously unknown dimension of interaction between Indigenous populations and foreign visitors.
The discovery suggests that Australia was not isolated for 65,000 years but had connections with neighboring regions. It challenges the notion that Australia was cut off from the rest of the world and provides evidence of sporadic or accidental voyages from Indonesia to the Australian coastline.
The paintings also raise intriguing questions about the relationship between the Moluccas and Aboriginal groups in Arnhem Land.
While it remains uncertain how the Aboriginal populations encountered the Moluccan boats, one possibility proposed by archaeologist Sue O’Connor is that Aboriginal groups may have visited the Moluccas themselves.
This could imply reciprocal visits or the Indigenous Australians venturing to the Moluccan region and then returning to depict the crafts they encountered.
Dutch colonial reports from the 17th century confirm that groups from the Moluccas were regularly sailing to Australia. These historical accounts align with the rock art findings and further support the notion of early contact between Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land and mariners from the Moluccan islands.
The significance of these findings extends beyond the immediate implications for Australian history. Distinguished Professor Paul Tacon, who is working on a related project, highlights the importance of investigating how Indigenous Australians recorded their interactions with foreign travelers.
The detailed depictions of the Moluccan ships offer valuable insights into how Aboriginal people documented contact with visitors from distant lands.
The study concludes that the rock art’s intricate details and distinctive features provide compelling evidence of past connections between Aboriginal people and mariners from the Moluccas.
These findings prompt a reevaluation of other rock paintings depicting watercraft across Arnhem Land and encourage future excavations to uncover additional evidence of contact with Southeast Asia.
More information: de Ruyter, M., Wesley, D., van Duivenvoorde, W. et al. (2023). Moluccan Fighting Craft on Australian Shores: Contact Rock Art from Awunbarna, Arnhem Land. Hist Arch. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41636-023-00390-7